Like many of the millions of immigrants who have arrived in New York City in the last three centuries, Laila Gohar and Omar Sosa live in one of the downtown walk-ups that were built to accommodate the surge of new residents who have defined the city’s culture since the mid-1800s. Less common, though, is the layout of the couple’s building; to reach the home of Gohar, a Cairo-born artist, and Sosa, a Barcelona-born graphic designer and publisher who co-founded the interiors magazine Apartamento, you must first enter a former tenement built in the mid-19th century on a now-bustling stretch of Spring Street, just west of the Bowery, then walk down a narrow, dimly lit hallway that opens into a 400-square-foot courtyard densely planted with laurel and vivid green birch trees. At the opposite end, down a leaf-strewn brick path, you’ll find a four-story red brick structure. Dating to that same period, it is one of New York’s so-called backhouses, the smaller residences that landlords erected in the 19th century behind the cover of larger buildings to increase rent revenue. Despite its origins, the building, which now has five units, is calm and oasis-like. At once hemmed in and bucolic, it evokes the dwelling in Virginia Lee Burton’s 1942 children’s book, “The Little House,” the looming metropolis pressed up against it.
From the inside, the couple’s third-floor, 700-square-foot apartment gives away nothing of the surrounding city: “It feels like a nest,” Sosa says. The four oversized windows in the open-plan front room are ringed by English ivy, and the home is decorated with both design classics (leather-backed brass Jacques Adnet dining chairs from the 1940s that Gohar bought at auction) and custom pieces (an ’80s-esque burled-maple veneer dining table with chunky cylindrical legs made by the New York artist Sam Stewart) that feel untethered from both time and place. Though Gohar has lived in Manhattan for 10 years and Sosa for three, “we both feel a little like foreigners,” she says. Accordingly, they have designed their apartment as a colourful sanctuary in which to enjoy the company of the people with whom they feel most comfortable: their friends, an ever-expanding cohort of multinational artists, cooks and art directors, who often stop by for tea or dinner.
Laila Gohar in the courtyard outside her home.
“One of the main reasons to keep a nice home is to welcome people that you love in it,” says Gohar, 31, whose professional life also revolves around entertaining. Over the past decade, she has made a name for herself by producing conceptual installations out of food for art and fashion clients: In 2017, for instance, she conceived a concrete-inspired dinner — with clay-baked fish and caviar-stuffed potatoes disguised as pebbles — in New York for Comme des Garçons that was inspired by the notes of its latest fragrance. She shares with Sosa, 36, an unwavering commitment to zaniness, executed, almost paradoxically, with utmost precision, and the aesthetic they have cultivated together in their apartment, much like that of the interiors featured in Sosa’s magazine (recent stories have showcased the homes of the painter and sculptor Fernando Botero and the Queens-born fashion designer Telfar Clemens) comes from their ability to create unlikely juxtapositions. Layering eras and genres, they blend classically handsome elements (Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni’s mid-20th-century Toio floor lamp, a working 19th-century cast-iron fireplace) with off-kilter accents: sherbet-coloured Venetian glass tchotchkes, say, or a Stephen Sprouse-inspired shower curtain printed with an image of the musician Iggy Pop posed like Jesus on the cross. The result is an environment that seems to be in lively conversation with itself — the physical equivalent of a raucous dinner party.
A leather-upholstered door by the artist Sam Stewart leads to the couple’s art-filled bedroom, where a photograph by Richard Kern and a print by Ellsworth Kelly hang above a painting by Chung Eun Mo and a drawing by Nathalie Du Pasquier. The orange commode is by Nicola L
Gohar looked at 90 or so apartments in Manhattan before finding one that met her precise requirements in 2013 (she and Sosa had met through mutual friends that same year and were married in 2017). She wanted somewhere, she says, that felt “European and familiar” to her, and with its early 20th-century wooden floors, brick walls and sensible layout — rectangular living area at the front, rectangular bedroom at the back — their home does feel Old World, an impression that’s underscored by their approach to inhabiting it. Up to three times a week, the couple hosts impromptu dinners: Gohar serves colourful salads alongside grilled meat or fish, typically followed by retro sweets such as Mont Blancs (puréed chestnuts with whipped cream) in antique silver cups or miniature candied fruit; the guests are invariably a mix of old friends and visiting design-world icons. Sometimes the gathering will begin or end in the courtyard, and there must always be Champagne. The staff at the wine store around the corner have become so accustomed to helping people who are on their way to the apartment that they recommend bottles based on what Gohar is cooking (she has usually stopped by earlier in the day, the night’s groceries in tow).
Unlike most hosts, though, Gohar and Sosa often involve guests in their decorating scheme. The apartment’s walls and floors, recently painted and carpeted in restrained shades of white and pale cream — inspired by a sudden vision Gohar had of the space as a cloudlike sanctum, “in which everything is melting into everything else”— have become a blank canvas on which they display gifts and acquisitions in ever-changing arrangements. Hung salon-style between the living room’s casement windows, there’s a pulsating oil-and-acrylic colour-field painting from 2018 by the New York artist Matt Connors, with whom Sosa is working on a monograph; a shield-shaped sculpture from 2017 by the Los Angeles artist Peter Shire; and a vibrant still life of a bowl of sun-washed oranges, painted in 2016 by the Toronto-based artist Nadia Gohar, Laila’s younger sister. Much of the couple’s furniture was also purchased from or created by people they know: A five-foot-long turquoise chaise longue in the shape of a foot, a 1969 work by the late French Pop artist Nicola L — whose son and grandson are friends of the couple, and about whom Sosa is publishing a book with Apartamento — dominates the front room, and a molten-looking amber-and-chartreuse resin Open Sky Crosby chair (1995-99) by the Italian architect Gaetano Pesce (which formerly belonged to another friend, the New York interior designer Jim Walrod) animates the dining space.
Though the apartment was pristine when Gohar moved in (its former owner was the Italian architect Massimiliano Locatelli), the kitchen was a typically compact New York galley tucked behind a slatted wooden dividing wall. Two years ago, with the help of the local design practice VDGR, the couple replaced it with a 14-foot-long counter with a blue-gray Formica work top along the eastern wall of the main room, as well as a new built-in pantry. Beneath open shelves crowded with mismatched serving vessels, Gohar’s knives are suspended across a three-foot-long magnetized ceramic knife strip that resembles an outstretched hand. Like many objects in the apartment, it was custom-made for the couple, in this case by the artist Sam Stewart.
Stewart, who is best known for his immersive interior installations featuring tubular furniture, has in fact transformed various corners of their apartment. To fill an awkward spot in the living room, he built a low-slung kidney-shaped sofa, evocative of a 1970s-era swimming pool, and now fitted with a natural linen slipcover. Down the hall is his most recent addition to the space: a new door with a Gothic ogival arch and a small barred window that opens into the bedroom. In stark contrast to the room’s minimalism — it’s furnished only with a frameless bed and “La Femme Commode” (1969), a persimmon-hued wooden armoire by Nicola L that’s shaped like an abstract Rubenesque female figure — the door is upholstered in umber and ocher leather patches that evoke the walls of a medieval castle. “In some way, I feel this apartment is his case study,” says Gohar. Indeed, giving their friends the freedom to experiment inside their apartment is perhaps the couple’s greatest act of hospitality. “There is something about the home that’s sacred and private and just for us,” Gohar says. “But at the same time, it’s a collaborative space.”
Like all New Yorkers, they sometimes fantasize about leaving, but Sosa says, “There’s no other place in the world where we have so many friends.” Gohar recalls how in the ’90s, her parents’ terra-cotta-red house in central Cairo seemed to accommodate an endless stream of acquaintances and relatives at their many parties. Dozens of guests, from all generations — ambassadors from the nearby embassies, the local fishmonger, various uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews — would arrive on Saturday nights, the crowds spilling out under the garden’s mango trees. That is how Gohar has always imagined her adult life, and “even though this space is small,” she says, “it serves the same purpose.”
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